It was 1790.
The U.S. Constitution had been in effect for barely a year, but already the government faced a crisis. The newly sworn-in Congress found itself paralyzed, unable to act on important issues of the day. As Thomas Jefferson described it, members “had got into the most extreme ill humor with one another. This broke out on every question with the most alarming heat; the bitterest animosities seemed to be engendered, and tho’ they met every day, little or nothing could be done from mutual distrust and antipathy.”
Alexander Hamilton, a bright young immigrant from the West Indies who now served as the first Treasury secretary, was insistent that Congress assume the debt incurred by states in fighting the Revolutionary War. He saw it as a federal obligation necessary to put our nation’s finances on a solid footing. But southern states, led by James Madison, balked because much of the debt was owed by northern states such as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York, where so much of the war had been fought.
A second critically important decision — where to locate the nation’s permanent capital — was also being blocked by sectional jealousies. Everyone wanted it; nobody wanted anybody else to have it. As a result, nothing could be done on either question, and the country was in danger of splitting apart under the Constitution before it could really get started.
Hoping to break the impasse, Jefferson invited the two main adversaries, Madison and Hamilton, to a private dinner at his home in New York City, the temporary capital. In the Broadway rap-musical hit “Hamilton,” playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda describes what happened in that room at 57 Maiden Lane:
“Two Virginians and an immigrant walk into a room. Diametric’ly opposed, foes.
They emerge with a compromise, having opened doors that were previously closed, bros.
The immigrant emerges with unprecedented financial power, a system he can shape however he wants.
The Virginians emerge with the nation’s capital….”
That capital, of course, being Washington, D.C., on the banks of the Potomac, deep in southern territory.
The deal — known in the history books as the Dinner Table Bargain — allowed both sides to win something important, and for the country to move on to other issues. And it tells us that right from the beginning, men such as Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson recognized the importance of compromise. They knew it was necessary because they had designed the new system of governance to require it.
In drafting the Constitution, they and the other Founders had consciously decided against a parliamentary system in which the faction that controlled the House of Representatives controlled the executive branch as well, a system that made compromise between the two branches unnecessary. They distrusted the power inherent in that system, believing that it allowed government to implement dramatic change too easily, whenever the whims of public opinion swung from side to side. Instead, they designed a system in which power would be diluted and shared, rather than concentrated, so that only through compromise would change occur.
As the rap goes in “Hamilton”:
“No one really knows how the parties get to yessss,
the pieces that are sacrificed in ev’ry game of chess,
We just assume that it happens,
but no one else is in the room where it happens….”
Today, it’s interesting to see people try to rewrite our history and traditions, pretending that compromise is surrender, that moderation is weakness, that ideological purity must be served and that anything else is somehow unpatriotic. They claim to revere both the Constitution and the Founding Fathers, in some cases to the point of donning Revolution-era costumes and carrying copies of the Constitution in their suit pockets, but they have no real understanding of what the Constitution attempts to achieve, or the means by which its designers intended it to operate.**
The origins of that misunderstanding are also pretty clear. Back in the early ’90s, when Newt Gingrich was just a Georgia backbencher with big ambitions, he would drop by the AJC’s offices fairly often to banter about politics. Even back then, it was clear that Newt’s deep interest in European history had given him a different perspective on legislative dynamics. As I wrote at the time, he believed that if you could instill stern, parliamentary-style discipline into the Republican Party, making it an act of betrayal to reach agreement with the other side, you could bring the system to its knees and force radical change just by controlling the House of Representatives. Put another way, he thought he had a way to shortcircuit the checks and balances installed by the Founders.
“Unlike the nonconfrontational Republicans who have led the minority party in the House,” as Clifford Krauss reported in the New York Times in 1992, “Mr. Gingrich says the best way to save Congress is to destroy its reputation by any means necessary.”
“I can’t tell you when we will win,” Gingrich told Krauss. “Every year is a make-or-break moment until the system collapses. We’ll know that when it happens.”
Over the past quarter century, with help from social media, talk radio and and other allies, Gingrich and his acolytes have built an intimidating system of discipline to keep their members in line. No deviance is tolerated, no compromise accepted. An entire generation of conservatives now believes, in contradiction to everything in our history, that “the room where it happens” is a bordello that ought to be boarded up forever. Their antipathy to compromise has become so deep-seated, so instinctive, that they are now unable to compromise among themselves even on a new party leader.
More importantly, by making adherence to ideology the single most important attribute in a politician, they have stripped the House of the flexibility needed to do business with the Senate and White House, which have their own interests, traditions and stances. And we witness the consequences.
Put in IT terms, the new software that they’ve been trying to install for the last quarter century remains stubbornly incompatible with the legacy hardware.
**In fact, try to imagine the outrage of talk-radio hosts, the Tea Party, and the “Freedom Caucus” to a modern-day equivalent of the Dinner Table Bargain. It’s like trying to imagine the dimensions of the universe.